Is the Emerging Democratic Majority Finally Coming to Pass?

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Supporters of Congressman Gil Cisneros, a Hispanic Democrat elected to represent the 39th District in Orange County, California, cheer at a rally at the Cal State Fullerton campus. Last week, The Los Angeles Times reported that formerly deep-red Orange County now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. 

In 1997, The American Prospect’s Paul Starr wrote an article titled “An Emerging Democratic Majority,” in which he argued that demographic and voting trends suggested the possibility that Democrats could take firm control of American politics for years or even decades to come. His title was a play on The Emerging Republican Majority, a 1969 book by former Nixon adviser Kevin Phillips that laid out the “Southern Strategy” that Republicans had used with such success. As Starr described Phillips’s thesis, “The Democratic Party's embrace of black interests had opened the South to the Republicans, while rapid economic and population growth in the Sunbelt presaged a continuing shift of power toward the most reliably conservative region of the country.” 

As the ensuing decades proved, Phillips was right. As for what was to follow, Starr’s argument about a Democratic recovery was offered with plenty of caveats about how things might not work out as the left hoped. But in 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published a book that convinced many liberals that no matter how much power Republicans might accumulate in one election or another, the future belonged to Democrats. In their book—also called The Emerging Democratic Majority—Judis and Teixeira focused much of their attention on “ideopolises,” large and growing metropolitan areas that would drive our economic and cultural future, and which would be overwhelmingly liberal in their values and politics.

They also argued that racial and ideological trends favored Democrats. Their book closed with the assertion that Americans did and would continue to support a strong government role in public education, fostering technological advancement, and programs like Social Security and Medicare. “And they want the social gains of the '60s consolidated, not rolled back; the wounds of race healed, not inflamed,” they wrote. “That’s why the Democrats are likely to become the majority party of the early 21st century.”

In subsequent years, any Republican victory—George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, off-year GOP election wins in 2010 and 2014, Donald Trump’s election in 2016—would inevitably see some conservatives crowing, “Where’s your emerging Democratic majority now, huh?” 

Judis and Teixeira’s response, along with those who agreed with them, was that the fundamental trends had not changed, even if they were playing out slowly with temporary political reversals along the way. Which brings us to our current moment, and Donald Trump’s insistence on putting his party in long-term danger.

There is no mystery about how Trump plans to get re-elected: He believes that with enough race-baiting to encourage them, his supporters will flock to the polls as they did in 2016. But there’s an emerging fear among Republicans that Trump has been so personally repellent and spent so much time focusing on his project of racial revanchism that it could be putting the suburbs—where a majority of Americans now live—out of the GOP’s reach. 

Consider the stunning news that The Los Angeles Times reported last week: Orange County, California—cradle of the Reagan Revolution, former hotbed of John Birch Society support, birthplace of the megachurch—now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. A couple of decades ago that would have seemed as likely as San Francisco becoming a Republican stronghold.

In 2018, four Democrats ousted Republican members of Congress whose districts include parts of Orange County. And that election saw similar results in suburban swing districts all over the country, where Democrats beat enough Republican members to enable their party to take back the House of Representatives.  

And now, not just Trump’s message but that of the entire Republican Party seems designed to alienate those voters. Right now the issue dominating the headlines is guns, where Republicans are not only out of step with a public that is increasingly supportive of new restrictions, but are about to betray that public sentiment yet again. 

In the last week, President Trump has been promising action on gun safety, a promise he is almost certain to break. That’s what happened after the Parkland massacre, when he said he would take on the NRA to push to increase the minimum age for buying long guns from 18 to 21. The NRA informed him that in fact he would do no such thing, and he meekly backed down. 

The same thing will happen now. Trump is claiming that he’ll support legislation to create universal background checks, something supported by nine in ten Americans in just about every poll. But the NRA is opposed, as are the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress, who represent districts and states where bucking the gun lobby on anything is believed to be political suicide (whether that’s actually true is a different matter). So there will be no major legislation passing Congress, and likely no legislation at all. 

There is a growing awareness within the Republican Party that inaction on guns, combined with the administration’s unfathomably cruel immigration policies and the distastefulness of Trump’s relentless racism, is alienating more and more suburban voters, especially women. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found Trump’s approval at 51 percent among suburban men, but only 37 percent among suburban women. As one GOP donor told Bloomberg News, “Republicans are headed for extinction in the suburbs if they don’t distance themselves from the NRA.” Which they can’t do. And there will be more mass shootings between now and next November.

One can imagine a different kind of Republican Party that could compete better with suburban moderates, not to mention do better with non-white and younger voters. It might advocate for lower taxes and a lighter government footprint, but consent to more sensible gun policies and get rid of its race-baiting. The trouble is that the current Republican Party has decided that no priority is higher than holding on to its white, rural base—and in Donald Trump’s view, that requires a commitment to a white identity politics based on hatred and resentment. In an America that grows more diverse by the day, the GOP is actually getting whiter.

Three years into Trump’s term, it is no longer possible for any Republican voter to deny what their party is about. For most, it isn’t enough to get them to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. But a significant number, perhaps even enough to swing the election, might just decide to stay home. If their losses in the suburbs continue, some in the party will plead that they need to change in order to retake power. There’s no telling if they’ll have the will to do it.

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